Is reading necessarily the highest use of leisure time?

“I don’t own a television.”

It’s the mantra of many who want to signal their elevation above the unwashed masses who go bananas with excitement at the prospect of a new season of Game of Thrones or Jack Ryan. I had to Google “most popular current television shows” to come up with those two titles. Does that earn me a bit of intellectual gravitas?

The sign of an educated mind today is often marked by testimonies of reading, and reading so many books per month, quarter or year, determined by what the reader thinks is the best period to use as a gauge. Reading it is supposed, is infinitely better than watching television. Anything, it is supposed, is better than watching television. Given that this is a blog dedicated chiefly to the discussion of books, reading, and the vast amount of knowledge to be found as a result, you might assume I am of the mind that reading is ever and always better than watching television.

Disclosure: As I begin this post, America’s Test Kitchen is fading to black on PBS and I am looking forward to next program, Steven Raichlen’s Project Fire. I am a sucker for a good cooking show and PBS spares me offensive commercials. No. I have not killed my TV. It doesn’t get a whole lot of use, at least not for scripted broadcast television shows, but we do have one.

Over dinner tonight we discussed this idea that reading in itself is a higher brow leisure activity.  The general consensus was that yes, it is certainly better than watching television. There was also a general agreement that a lot of people who brag about their lack of television watching spend copious amounts of time watching YouTube videos or arguing on Twitter and Facebook, which is hardly any better. What I really wanted to know however, is if there is more reading taking place, and if so, is it the kind of reading which adds to the metal acuity what television is presumed to take away from it. The answer we came away with was: It depends.

One of our daughters, a history buff if ever there was one, has been watching the documentary series World War II in color. She questioned whether reading one of the latest YA novels would be more advantageous than watching her documentary based solely on the fact that she would be turning pages whether than watching a screen. It’s on this point that I find myself parked.

There is a school of thought among people in general and even some educators that children and teens reading anything is better than if they were reading nothing at all. I am embarrassed to admit that there was a point when I harbored such foolish thoughts as well. Reading is fundamental, after all! Reading is always the best and most effective use of one’s leisure if television is the alternative. Hikes, jogs, nature exploration and the likes are even better, but suburbanites are not always in the position to exercise those options.

However, a cursory glance at the books which are most popular today leaves me with the impression that most are literature’s version of junk food. Books so devoid of depth (of characters as well as language) that many people can read two or three of them a week without missing a beat! Given the relatively common damage to the attention spans of the public at large, it doesn’t take a literature professor to figure out that 300 page books which can be zipped through in one’s spare time after just three days and over 4 hours are probably hamburger to Thackeray’s t-bone steak.

The devolution of reading, which we’ve discussed before, necessitates that certain books demand different levels of engagement than others. In other words, digesting words on a page is technically to read. However when we digest and process ideas, language, and stories that challenge us to think deeply and seek more earnestly the good, the true, and beautiful, then we know that we are really reading.

In short, not all reading is created equal.

Elaboration: Yes, in most cases, reading beats watching television. I know full well most Americans aren’t into PBS cooking shows or WWII documentaries. Including our young adult kids, who are kind of hooked on The Office.

Wait. Is Netflix TV?


11 thoughts on “Is reading necessarily the highest use of leisure time?

  1. stmichaelkozaki says:

    …spend copious amounts of time watching YouTube videos or arguing on Twitter and Facebook, which is hardly any better.

    I think you ignore the problems with TV as a medium (it even shows up with brain scans as a frontal-lobe killer). Problems with TV: 1: it’s too slow for a real information pipe; it reaches the limbic system not the frontal lobe. 2: It’s push media by necessity as the watcher cannot skim it nor control it (only curse it). 3. It’s expensive to produce/distribute so must target to the lower IQ masses, so it’s always garbage.

    For these reasons TV must be a lowbrow medium & can’t be fixed. Movies can be better (but still suffer from #3). YouTube can be really good since it can eliminate nearly every problem with TV, 1-3. I’m not sure about Twit or FB since I don’t use them but they seem more like news or gossip or even reasonable discussion so I’m open-minded?

    I don’t find reading word-for word very useful either anymore. It’s too slow and limited. I prefer skimming many different books at the same time and then surfing to supplement, then watching YouTube vids to round it out. I’ve learned more in the last 10 years of the web than my entire prior 30 yrs reading, and I was a big reader (yes, no TV!). The web is far bigger than Gutenberg IMO. It’s completely changed my life, my opinions, and my understanding of the world.


  2. Elspeth says:

    You seem to have translated this post as a defense of television. Or a condemnation of the Internet. I too, have learned a lot from the Internet, and I don’t watch a lot of television.

    It may be too much Cal Newport of late, but I am not a fan of skimming and you tubing. It has its place, and I learned to make a cute crochet blanket among other things via you tube, but reading that requires deep concentration is, in my opinion far superior.

    However, the steaks I cooked for dinner last night were inspired by something I picked up from Steven Reichlan, and they were good.

    I don’t have Facebook or Twitter either but from what I have read of them and on the bits I was able to see, the notion that anything resembling reasonable, thought-provoking discussion is pretty laughable.

    I am a woman of conviction and admire people who have the courage of their convictions, but for most people online discussion is an exercise in digging their heels in on hills hardly worth dying on while pretending that the subject is one where the convictions are life or death matters.

    I am not defending television as a medium nor do I it find a useful way to spend a lot of time. My point here was the question of whether the emerging alternate forms of time passage (social media, fluff novels, and what are often stupid videos) are significantly better.

    Is my one hour of cooking shows on PBS learning something about grilling steaks that I actually plan to implement better than if I’d read the new Bill Clinton/James Patterson novel?

    Specifically, since this is primarily a reading and book discussion blog, is any kind of reading better than nothing? Or are some kinds of reading worse than if you’d spent 30 minutes watching a television program?

    Yes, the web is bigger than Gutenberg, but Gutenberg doesn’t depend on something as fragile and open to sabotage as the web. So don’t forget how to buckle down and read a great book.


  3. Elspeth says:

    Also smk, you might be interested in what prompted the dinner conversation around our table.

    One of my young adult kids noted (in a sardonic tone) that at her job “Cool people don’t watch TV”.

    This despite she is the only one there who hasn’t watched all the current television hits. In other words, they watch their phones and brag that they don’t watch TV.

    I had one other thought in response to your closing comment. The Internet has changed my life (and my opinions about things) as well.

    And the truth is, I was a lot happier NOT knowing a lot of what I know now. Especially about the things that don’t really have a direct bearing on my life.

    I know for a fact that it is possible to have a good life, a life devoid of half-truths and pretty “blue pill” lies, without the Internet commentators. I’m watching my husband do it.

    Like Eve however, once you know…the damage is done.


  4. Bike Bubba says:

    I believe C.S. Lewis wrote something about this–maybe in The Abolition of Man–noting that if a man knows how to read, but not how to think, he is slave to the writer every bit as much as many of us are slaves to the idiot box. Every once in a while, I make sure that I teach my kids (a) how to recognize garbage literature and (b) I insist that it leave the house. An early example is the “horse romances” that a lot of little girls love, and another example is a lot of “Christian” fiction that has a nice moral, but not any particular reason to read it.

    SMK’s comment on how literature and film interacts with the brain is well taken, but either is deadly if one doesn’t ever learn how to think.

    Side note; I’ve got Raichlen’s “Barbeque Bible”, and if you liked his recipe for steaks, there is a lot more where that came from. One of my favorites is Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine Beefsteak), and even if you cannot obtain aged, fattened Chianini beef from Firenze, you can do awfully well.


  5. Bike Bubba says:

    One other note; I’m starting to learn that getting to the next level of cooking is going to require me to do one of my favorite things, read cookbooks. I’ve been blessed by the work of Julia Child, Raichlen, “The Frugal Gourmet”, and a lot of others. There is so much more there than just the recipes!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    if a man knows how to read, but not how to think, he is slave to the writer every bit as much as many of us are slaves to the idiot box.

    Agreed. And if there is one thing I am convinced of thoroughly and through and through, it’s that our education system, government, and consumer machine exist almost completely on the ignorance of a populace who hasn’t the slightest clue of HOW to think.


  7. hearthie says:

    FB exists as the text version of short communal conversations/gossip/spats, it’s not ‘reading’ except insofar as you do have to read to do text. Twitter is like reading a newspaper clipping service interspersed with the editorial page. YMMV, depending on what clipping service you subscribe to and what lunatics are on your editorial page.

    I LIKE junk reading and I won’t even lie. 😀 It’s totally my version of TV. Do I think it’s superior to equal-quality TV? Yes. Do I think it’s superior to high-quality TV/Movies/Netflix? No. But that’s not what I’m DOING when I’m reading light fiction (okay, I don’t like *junk* fiction, it makes my head itch). I’m chilling out and resting. Distracting myself from something (I have an interview later today, and I am totally spending most of the morning reading light fiction, keeps me from twitching).

    Literature qua literature tends to leave me blah, for reasons discussed at length in comments to other posts. Good thoughtful books > good thoughtful youtubes, but good thoughtful youtubes often lead me to buy those books… and then get deeper than the youtube video can. I don’t skim when I read, but I do read very, very fast.

    Why do we need to value this stuff? Everything in its place. I’ll enjoy my light fiction this morning, later today or this weekend I’ll be listening to heavy youtube while I do my kitchen work, and eventually I will force myself to read the philosophy book open on my jewelry box. :p

    In the meantime, we should also be PRODUCING work, not merely consuming it.


  8. Elspeth says:

    Yes. Internet blurbs have induced me to buy several books.

    We value these things because it’s what people are prone to do: elevate themselves by valuing their choices above the choices of others. Note the thing from work my daughter shared. Started because another employee mentioned something they saw on television.

    This touched off the discussion of how much evolution is really taking place in the post-TV age.


  9. stmichaelkozaki says:

    E: You seem to have translated this post as a defense of television. Or a condemnation of the Internet.

    I don’t think that. Look I don’t comment on 99% of what I read, only stuff I find interesting & of that what I think missing to complete the discussion, or (if I’m lucky) the parts I disagree with. It’s really just as a way to think my thoughts out loud and oft has little to do with the original post. While your post triggered my thoughts I honestly kind of forgot about your comments once I start writing. IOW, I’m sophistic…:-).

    E: our education system, government, and consumer machine exist almost completely on the ignorance of a populace who hasn’t the slightest clue of HOW to think.

    Of course. We know this from IQ research. Take an SAT test (or ASVAB test is even better) because they are G-loaded…then compare to the average. A better (more accurate?) way to look at things? humans are just part of the natural environment and you can’t fix stupid, only work around it. Evil, like Google? is often high-IQ and a wholly different problem.

    BB: if a man knows how to read, but not how to think, he is slave to the writer

    I would say more that he is a slave to himself and his own ego. Just changing the IQ platform (which is really the crux of the pulp fiction angle) doesn’t address the underlying problem: arrogance and individualism leading to thinking w/out rigorous logic.

    Being a science/logic/math guy I can’t help but note nobody is debating physics texts, not in class nor the internet. It just don’t happen; we all just blindly follow the authority. Who checks the proofs? Hah. As the Barbie pull-doll says: Math is hard. I once walked through AE’s relativity proof & later G’s incompleteness proof and gave that up fast! Yikes. Yet in literature or politics or theology? Everyone thinks they are the next Aquinas or Aristotle or something while less than 0.1% have ever read either. Sad.

    So I guess I’m not so down on TV or pulp fiction as just another fairly harmless mindless entertainment that any person with a room temp IQ finds boring. My kids sometimes bring home the pulp garbage, but it never lasts long, so who cares. TV/radio/music are not allowed individually just because they bother other people in the home yet are antisocial if done alone (and of course are addictive but that’s another story). I’m far more concerned with food, actually.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elspeth says:

    I don’t think that. Look I don’t comment on 99% of what I read, only stuff I find interesting & of that what I think missing to complete the discussion

    Well then you honor me, sir and I am appreciative. Thank you for reading and weighing in.

    Yes, most of television is quite boring -cooking shows which delve into the science of food excepted- and in reality people who watch “high brow” TV are just likely to be reading informative, interesting books.


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